To date, virtual currency exchanges in the United States have structured their operations in an effort to avoid being required to register as an exchange with either the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. While these efforts may be entirely legal, without the regulatory protections of exchange registration, they could create enhanced risks for customers, particularly in the case of a fund’s insolvency or collapse. A recent federal case highlights these risks and provides a roadmap for asserting personal jurisdiction over a virtual currency exchange.
In a recently published Request for Information (“RFI”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) seeks public comment on the underlying technology, opportunities, risks, mechanics, use cases, and markets related to Ether and the Ethereum Network. According to the CFTC, the public input from this request will help to advance its mission of ensuring the integrity of the derivatives markets as well as monitoring and reducing systemic risk by enhancing legal certainty in the markets. In particular, the RFI seeks to understand similarities and differences between Ether and Bitcoin.
In addition to seeking general comment, the RFI includes 25 specific questions, many of which include multiple parts. The RFI concludes by noting that the CFTC looks forward to continuing to engage proactively with the innovator community and market participants in order to help facilitate market-enhancing innovation and ensure market integrity. Public comments are due 60 days after the RFI is published in the Federal Register.
Congressmen Darren Soto (D-FL) and Ted Budd (R-NC) recently introduced two bipartisan bills to address virtual currency price manipulation and maintain the United States’ leadership in the cryptocurrency industry. In a joint statement citing the New York Attorney General’s recent report on crypto exchanges and other recent media reports, the members announced that:
“Virtual currencies and the underlying blockchain technology has a profound potential to be a driver of economic growth. That’s why we must ensure that the United States is at the forefront of protecting consumers and the financial well-being of virtual currency investors, while also promoting an environment of innovation to maximize the potential of these technological advances. This bill [sic] will provide data on how Congress can best mitigate these risks while propelling development that benefits our economy.” Continue Reading Congress Considers Bipartisan Bills to Prevent Virtual Currency Manipulation
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) recently published a detailed primer on smart contracts. The Primer discusses their functionality, use cases, regulatory environment and potential risks. It describes a “smart contract” as a set of coded computer functions that (1) may incorporate the elements of a binding contract (e.g., offer, acceptance, and consideration), or (2) may execute certain terms of a legal contract, or (3) allows self-executing computer code to take actions at specified times or based on reference to the occurrence or non-occurrence of an action or event (e.g., delivery of an asset, weather conditions, or change in a reference rate). The Primer also observes that a smart contract may not be a legally binding contract, which is a critical distinction for developers and entrepreneurs (and their counsel) in the digital economy.
On July 12, 2018, a federal judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York reaffirmed its view that cryptocurrency fraud is subject to the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (“CFTC’s”) anti-fraud and anti-manipulation enforcement authority. The ruling involved a federal civil enforcement action filed by the CFTC in January 2018 against Patrick McDonnell and his company, CabbageTech, Corp. d/b/a Coin Drop Markets (“CDM”), charging the defendants with fraud and misappropriation in connection with purchases and trading of the virtual currencies Bitcoin and Litecoin. The CFTC’s complaint alleges that McDonnell and CDM operated a deceptive and fraudulent virtual currency scheme to induce customers to send money and virtual currencies to CDM in exchange for purported virtual currency trading advice, and for virtual currency purchases and trading on behalf of customers under McDonnell’s direction. Continue Reading U.S. District Court Reaffirms CFTC’s Authority over Cryptocurrency Fraud
On July 16, 2018, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) issued a customer advisory on digital tokens. Citing various studies and reports, the advisory identified high rates of fraud in some initial coin offerings, and warned investors to be on the lookout for the following risks associated with investing in digital tokens:
- The potential for forks in open-source applications that could split away market participants, increase the number of digital coins or make coins obsolete.
- Decrease in mining or validation costs (if price is tied to those factors).
- Acceptance of other currencies, coins or tokens for offered goods and services.
- The link between the value of a digital coin or token and the offered product or service.
- Adoption of the digital coin or token as a broad medium of exchange or store of value.
- Future competitors or technological changes that could disrupt the underlying business.
- Future demand or uses for an application, network, product or service.
- Liquidity in the market for a specific digital coin or token.
- Changes to the underlying technology that could devalue digital coins or tokens.
- Risk of theft from hacking.
The CFTC has largely ceded enforcement authority for digital tokens that are securities to the Securities and Exchange Commission, but the advisory reminds readers that “digital tokens and coins can also be derivatives or commodities, depending on how they are structured.”